Defining Performance-Based Accountability

Our leaders should be held accountable! Our results should be better – if only teachers would be more accountable! Common cries as the soft power of the OECD creeps into our psyche. However, as educators we are not necessarily clear when we speak of accountability.

Stobart (2008) posits that ‘we are so familiar with accountability in many spheres of life that it is hardly defined’ (p. 117). His notes reviewed Herman and Haertel’s Uses and misuse of data for educational accountability and improvement (2005), finding no single formal definition of accountability, therefore ‘assuming we know what it is’ (Stobart, 2008, p. 193).

This blog goes some way in bringing clarity to the term. It settles on a definition for performance-based accountability in the context of Australian education. Speaking plainly this is the accountability for performance results from external assessment programs such as NAPLAN and Year 12 exit instruments. The definition presented here is deliberately specific avoiding general terms such as educational accountability. In Australia, educational accountability may include a multitude of accountabilities such as bureaucratic and market accountabilities or work, health and safety accountabilities. Given that a readily formed definition of educational accountability is obscure (see inset: Stobart, 2008) definitions in other spheres are explored. For this blog several definitions of accountability are analysed and synthesised into five key concepts, to form a usable definition which can be framed in educational terms.

The economic sector defines accountability as the obligation to provide information so that people can make informed judgements about the performance and financial position of an organisation (Halligan, 2007). In a corporate governance context, Huse (2005) defines accountability as defending one’s reasons for actions and supplying normative grounds by which they may be justified. Within a legal context, Bovens (2007) defines accountability as a ‘relationship between the actor and a forum, in which the actor has an obligation to explain and to justify his or her conduct, the forum can pose questions and pass judgement and the actor may face consequences’ (Bovens, 2007a, p. 450).

Gray’s (2002) definition in a social context, similar to that of Bovens (2007), is clear about the persons involved and the consequences that are to be faced. Accountability is explained in terms of individuals and organisations presenting an account of the actions for which society holds them responsible (Gray, 2002). Kuchapski’s (2001) definition, from a political context, specifically identified consequences as ‘redress’, defining accountability as those in office providing information, justifying and explaining and providing redress to the people. Coghill et al. (2006), in the economic context, similar to Gray (2002), included the notion of relationship in the sense of ‘direct authority’, defining accountability as the ‘direct authority relationship within which one party accounts to a person or body for the performance of tasks or functions conferred, or able to be conferred, by that person or body’ (Coghill et al., 2006, p. 457). In the educational context, the definitions are less specific, explaining accountability as the processes involved in meeting goals (Leithwood & Earl, 2000) or as regulations for measuring educational outputs (Rowe, 2005).

Five key ideas from this initial sample of definitions that were deemed useful for this study were drawn from Bovens (2007) and Kuchapski (2001): (a) disclosure, making information known (Kuchapski, 2001); (b) transparency, providing clarity about the disclosed information and ensuring that this information makes sense to those receiving the information (Kuchapski, 2001); (c) consequences from the information disclosed, with some form of redress or appropriate action able to be taken from the disclosed information (Bovens, 2007; Kuchapski, 2001); (d) being obliged to explain and justify the information (Bovens, 2007); and (e) the notion of relationship between the person being held accountable and their constituency (Bovens, 2007a).

These five understandings underpin the following definition of accountability, which works as a platform for settling on a definition:

Accountability is a relationship between a person who is held responsible for the delivery of certain outcomes (the actor) and the individuals and organisations from whom they receive their mandate for those outcomes. This relationship requires that the actor behaves transparently and discloses, explains and justifies their conduct and its outcomes in the area of the mandate, with the expectation that there will be consequences contingent on these.

The following definition now aligns the above definition through the educational lens. The definition situates the principal in the role of the actor, with the School system leaders as the mandating authorities for the Government.

Performance-based accountability is a relationship between the principal (person) who is held responsible for the delivery of favourable[1] performance results from external assessment programs (certain outcomes) and the School system (individuals or organisations) from whom they receive their expectations (outcomes). This relationship requires that the principal (actor) behaves transparently and discloses, explains and justifies their ways of accounting for the performance results (conduct and its outcomes) in the area of the mandate, with the expectation that there will be consequences contingent on these.

Figure 1: Key elements of performance-based accountability

Key elements of defn


The principal, with educators, are the persons who act with responsibility to another. In other words, the accountability relationship is a responsibility relationship. The principal’s and educator’s role in the accountability relationship can be defined as being obliged to be transparent, to disclose and justify their performance results to their performance results to their communities (parents, students, and state and federal authorities). In their accountability relationship, principals (as in the economic and political sectors) are accounting in different directions: to the government or school system, to parents and students, and to teachers. Essential in the relationship is the element of redress. If there is no evidence of redress, even if intentional, the view maybe interpreted that there has been ‘no accountability’.


Bovens, M. (2007). Analysing and assessing accountability: A conceptual framework. European Law Journal, 13(4), 447–468.

Coghill, K., Crawford, D., Cunliffe, I., Grant, B., Hodge, G., Hughes, &  Zifcak, S. (2006). Why accountability must be renewed: Discussion paper on reform of Government accountability in Australia [Workshop of Parliamentary Scholars and Parliamentarians (7th: 2006: Wroxton College, Oxfordshire).]. Australasian Parliamentary Review, 21(2), 10–48.

Gray, R. (2002). Thirty years of social accounting, reporting and auditing: What (if anything) have we learnt? Business Ethics: A European Review, 10(1), 9–15.

Halligan, J. (2007). Accountability in Australia: Control, paradox, and complexity. Public Administration Quarterly, 31(4), 453–479.

Huse, M. (2005). Accountability and creating accountability: A framework for exploring behavioural perspectives of corporate governance. British Journal of Management, 16, S65–S79.

Kuchapski, R. (2001). Conceptualizing accountability in education (SSTA Research Centre report). Saskatoon: University of Saskatchewan.

Leithwood, K., & Earl, L. (2000). Educational Accountability Effects: An International Perspective. Peabody Journal of Education 75(4), 1–18.

Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. (2016). OECD better policies for better lives. Retrieved from

Rowe, K. (2005, August). Evidence for the kinds of feedback data that support both student and teacher learning. Paper presented at the The Australian Council for Educational Research 2005 Conference, Melbourne, VIC.

Stobart, G. (2008). Testing times: The uses and abuses of assessment. New York, NY: Routledge.


[1] As this blog is situated in principals’ understandings of accountability the meaning of ‘favourable’ is determined by the principal. Hence, favourability is a useful term to describe performance results, rather than high, mid or low results.


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